At only 20, Nurul Kamariah Rosli was both a successful business owner and a stellar student.
Always a high-performer, Nurul Kamariah's journey into entrepreneurship started because she was disappointed with her SPM results.
Hoping for straight As, she was so despondent that she achieved 10 As and 2 Bs that she did not apply for a place in a university.
This prompted her father to enrol her in a private university, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unirazak), which then offered her a full scholarship based on her previous academic performance.
But there was a catch - the course offered was to specialise in entrepreneurship - and to qualify for the funding, she had to show that she was also a business owner.
“I accepted the offer because … students would get a free laptop and would be able to go to the United States for our final semester. It turned out to be a course in business, specialising in entrepreneurship.
“I had never even heard of the word ‘entrepreneurship’ before this,” she chuckled.
To qualify, she started selling clothes for women through a blog on the free blogging platform, blogspot.com. Within three months, she made enough money to set up a brick and mortar store in her hometown of Raub, Pahang.
That was almost eight years ago.
Since then, Kamariah graduated with a cumulative grade point average of 3.8 and is now the owner of a successful online venture, Qoma.
The fashion brand, which is also Kamariah's nickname, has amassed more than 260,000 followers collectively on social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. That is nearly a third of the population of the Pahang town where it had its humble beginnings.
Kamariah is one of the scores of Malaysian women who have harnessed the power of e-commerce to set up businesses that go beyond their immediate physical markets.
Qoma's sales are 90 percent online, Kamariah said, a realisation she made while deliberating whether to shut down the Raub store after moving to Malacca to be with her husband.
Now, the 28-year-old manages her own Instagram and Facebook accounts to both sell and market her brand of clothes and scarves, and relies on some 120 agents in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.
Kamariah also makes trips to Shah Alam where her factory is located, and to Indonesia and Vietnam to source for materials for her products.
She shares her journey in building the business, including where she sources her materials - a story-telling method of marketing she believes has earned her loyal customers and is an integral part of the brand.
“Maybe a lot of people follow me on Facebook because I reveal everything about the exact places to go to buy materials for clothes in Vietnam and Indonesia," she said.
“Despite having revealed the nook and crannies to go to, my brand is still strong."
A billion-ringgit market
The advent of social media has boosted the e-commerce sector in Malaysia and is a boon for both consumers and business owners. It has also lowered the barrier of entry for those seeking to venture into business.
More than half, or 15.3 million, of 20 million active Internet users in Malaysia are online shoppers, statistics from the US Department of Commerce show.
Half of the consumers surveyed said they do online shopping at least once a month, with only seven percent never having shopped online, a PriceWaterhouse Coopers survey on retail habits last year revealed.
In 2017, the e-commerce market in Malaysia is expected to reach US$1.1 billion, with revenue expected to show an annual growth rate of 23.2 percent, leading to a market volume of US$2.6 billion by 2021, statistics portal Statista predicts.
The high volume of online sales has prompted the government to look into legislation, requiring business owners who conduct sales online to register their businesses.
Believing that the fashion online business world is fast becoming saturated in Malaysia, Siti Nursuhada Ahmad Zaki, 26, opted to sell fancy ballgowns to capture a niche market.
The owner of Sue Secret House, Nursuhada started her online business in 2013 and two years later, set up her own boutique in Ipoh, without even having to seek for a loan.
The Perakian's products comprise prom, evening, bridesmaid and wedding dresses at prices affordable to middle-income earners.
She also rents out the dresses to bridal boutiques, and to be used as costumes in local drama productions. Those buying in bulk get wholesale discounts.
Nationwide distribution, and beyond
The online aspect of her business means that her clients are not limited to those who are from Ipoh - said her clients come from all over the country.
Social media entrepreneurs like Nursuhada expand their markets beyond their physical reach by using hashtags.
For example, a Kuala Lumpur-based bride may look for her gown online by typing the popular hashtag #bajunikah (wedding dress) on social media outlets Instagram or Facebook.
The bride will then be able to browse through social media postings by online entrepreneurs advertising their goods using the same hashtag, whether they are based in the federal capital, in another state or overseas.
The ease of online banking and efficient courier networks also help the likes of Sue Secret Shop to easily service clients from other states, and even overseas.
Nursuhada’s success so far has prompted the expectant mother to now look into producing her own beauty product lines.
“When we work on something we are interested in, we will be sincere about it and our lives will be much more peaceful,” said Nursuhada who studied tourism at a local community college.
Opportunities outside urban centres
The fashion industry is not the only area where e-commerce has helped young women find their business footing.
For Nur Dalila Farhana Yusof, it was her love for "pisang cheese" (cheese-topped banana fritters) that made her decide to open her own business selling pisang cheese with the name "Pisang Kejuk" in her native Terengganu.
Nur Dalila said she was convinced she could make it as an online food entrepreneur, following her success in selling shawls online to supplement her monthly salary in Kuala Lumpur.
She has since quit her job as a marketing executive in the capital city to work on her food venture full time in her hometown of Kuala Terengganu.
Her experience underscores how e-commerce can play a role in easing congestion in Malaysia's urban centres, to which young people continue to flock in droves, citing lack of opportunities at home.
The pisang cheese idea was also her way to help her mother's pisang goreng business innovate, Nur Dalila said.
At that time, the pisang cheese fad had yet to arrive in the East Coast, giving her the first-mover advantage. Two years on, “Pisang Kejuk” has expanded and offers up to 14 different options.
Operating from a rented store, Nur Dalila also attracts business through posting interesting pictures and captions online. She also gets orders through WhatsApp and customers can come to the shop to pick their pisang cheese of choice or sometimes, Nur Dalila herself would deliver them.
But the ease of promotion and marketing on social media comes with its challenges.
“When I started the business, Alhamdulillah, I received good response and went viral. But this led to many trying to copy me using the same name and there were also many who stole my pictures for their own ventures,” she lamented.
Despite these challenges, Nur Dalila has plans to open her own store.
“If I have my own shop, I can expand my brand and it will no longer focus on pisang cheese alone,” she said.
Balancing business with a baby
The flexibility of being an online entrepreneur has also helped women balance a career and the traditional demands of bringing up a child - something young mother Najwa Muhammad found out when she had her first child at the tender age of 19.
When scouring the Internet for tips on taking care of her son, Najwa found that many sought-after products for infant care were not available in Malaysia.
This prompted her to contact dealers who sell the products abroad, leading to a burgeoning online business.
“Alhamdulillah, now I am able to help other mothers,” said the now 23-year-old.
She sells items such as strollers, shoes, branded clothes, birthing sets, nappy bags and school necessities for children as young as five, and has now ventured into selling home decor and snacks - all of which are sourced overseas.
Like many online entrepreneurs, Najwa is a one-woman show and works at her own pace by setting targets for herself.
For example, she estimates that she needs 30 orders a day to make 300 sales a week, and strives to meet this.
“So, to achieve that, I will do some marketing on Facebook at least four times a day,” said Najwa who has a diploma in interior design from UiTM.
However, the downside to this is that she never clocks out. Her work day starts as early as 5am and usually ends at midnight.
Undeterred, Najwa plans to create her own brand and to bring Malaysia’s name to the international arena when it comes to baby products.
She takes her inspiration from the poster child for Malaysian female online entrepreneurship - Vivy Yusof, the 30-year-old founder of Fashion Valet, who turned her blog on fashion into a global, multi-million ringgit venture.
“My long-term plan is to become a vendor on a website selling baby necessities, such as Fashionvalet.com,” Najwa added.- Mkini